How I learnt to enjoy Gujarati thalis after two decades in Mumbai

The Gujarati thali that I had for lunch on Rushina Munshaw Ghildayal's birthday
This was at a party thrown by her mother. The food was cooked by the family maharaj

  • I don't like eating at Mumbai's Gujarati thali restaurants as I find the experience too overwhelming
  • I love eating home-cooked Gujarati meals though
  • This post is about one such meal that I had at the birthday of food writer & consultant Rushina Munshaw Ghildayal
  • The food was cooked by the family 'maharaj'. I loved it

The Gujarati thali treadmill

"How I learnt to enjoy Gujarati thalis, is the headline that you thought of? really?" you ask? 

"What is there to not enjoy about a Gujarati thali?,"  you wonder? "Everyone loves Gujarati thalis," you say in a huff?

Well, let me make it clear that I am not trying to be sensational, attention seeking or click-baity with my choice of headline. To be fair, it is not that I dislike Gujarati thali meals and this is not a rant against them. It is eating in the Gujarati thali restaurants of Mumbai that I am not too fond of. Even though they form a significant part of Mumbai's eating out landscape.

Sometime back I had received a brief to do a listicle on Mumbai's best Gujarati thali joints. I declined it saying that I am not the right person to the topic justice. The thing is, that to me all the thali joints are the same. 

You go in and sit down. They place a big stainless steel plate, the thali, in front of you and then place empty bowls on the plate. The waiters then come to you with an unending procession of dishes. Vegetarian of course and no, that is not my biggest grouse against them. 

It's just that you get up at the end of the meal and realise that the past few minutes had just passed away in a blur without anything registering in your head. The experience was too overwhelming you see.

There is a bias involved of course. As a Bengali I am used to eating my food course by course and at an unhurried pace. The slam bang serving style of thali restaurants, where multiple side dishes are plonked on your plate at one go, do not work for me.

The fact that the dishes served with the thalis are often on the sweeter side does put me off too. I am a Bangal and my ancestors  belong to the erstwhile East Bengal side of undivided India. We do not sweeten our food. Though I must admit that the few thali joint that I have been to in recent years seem to have reduced the sweet quotient in the food they serve. This is the Rajashani influence some say. I have also learnt over time that all Gujarati food is not sweet, just as all Indian food is not spicy.

Tastes in food, or anything in life, are personal of course.  To paraphrase the 15 th century Japanese Buddhist monk, Nicherin Daishonin, the cherry, plum, peach, apple, pear and damon all have their own qualities... as do people.

You could very well argue that I am in a minority in my uneasy relationship with the thali joints of Mumbai. The undeniable truth is that Mumbai's thali restaurants are very popular among locals as well as tourists and their fans will far outnumber the detractors.

The only restaurant in Mumbai where I like Gujarati food is Soam. The food here is served a la carte and not as a thali. This is more suited to my style of eating. I like the fact that I get to really enjoy and savour the food here on my own terms. Another restaurant here called Swati Snacks follows a similar format and has its share of fans.

It was my friend, Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, who had first insisted that I visit Soam. I had resisted her exhortations for long. My indifferent experiences with Gujarati thali places and my general lack of interest in vegetarian restaurants held me back from going to Soam for long. When I finally went to Soam, I was smitten. This was a very different world from what I had been exposed to so far.

The beauty of home cooked meals

While I am not fond of Gujrati thali restaurants, I do like home cooked Gujarati food though. When I was in school in Kolkata a classmate of mine, Deven Shah, had invited some us to his house at Bhowanipore. His mother cooked us a Gujarati meal that day that we loved. This was my first experience of dishes such as the kadhi and shreekhand and I had enjoyed them.

When I was new to Mumbai, the mother of my friends Kinnari and Dhrupal, treated me to a simple Gujarati thali lunch one Sunday afternoon and I had loved that meal too. That was the afternoon when I realised that all Gujarati dals are not sweet unlike what the thali joints I had recently experienced had made me believe. The food she served was so comforting to even my Bengali soul.

When I had a Gujarati thali dinner a few years back at the house of Anaggh Desai, whom I know through my early days on Twitter, I once again came home happy and satiated. The meal was cooked jointly by his wife, his mother and his daughter and was delightful.

These Gujarati meals were far more enjoyable than what I'd ever eaten at Mumbai's thali restaurants.

Dine with the Munshaws

Rushina Munshaw Ghildayal in yellow and her mom,
Heena Munshaw beside her, not in yellow

'Very enjoyable and epic,' is how I would describe the Gujarati thali meal that I had for lunch on Rushina's birthday on Saturday. Her mother, Heena Munshaw, had thrown a party on the occasion at her house in south Mumbai house where Rushina had grown up as a kid.

As is the case in many traditional Gujarati joint families, Rushina's family has a 'maharaj' too. I do not mean an emperor of course, which is what 'maharaj'  literally translates to in Hindi. Maharaj in a Gujarati household means chef or family cook from what I understand. The maharaj in a Gujarati family lords over the kitchen and cooks all meals for the fmaily.  The meals cooked would be vegetarian of course and usually freshly made before each meal.

Rushina and Heena aunty and the Munshaw family Maharaj,
Shree Chandra Shekhar Mehta
Enter the maharaj

Shree Chandra Shekhar Mehta, the Maharaj in Rushina's family, had come to Mumbai from Rajasthan to work as a young boy. He had joined the family around the time when Rushina was born and is in his mid 60s now. Heena aunty herself was a young bride back then. Rushina tells me that her grand-mom had trained the maharaj to ensure that the best quality food came out of the kitchen. During festivals, Rushina's grandmom would work with the maharaj to lay out the most splendid of meals for the family and their guests. She (her grandmom) is no more but I am sure she would have approved of the birthday feast that the maharaj had cooked up for her beloved granddaughter's birthday.

When Rushina was a child , her mother would often bring back pickes, spices, sweets and snacks from Ahmedabad to Mumbai. Some of which would be used by the Maharaj while cooking. Things have changed since then. Aunty gets what she needs in Mumbai itself.

The maharaj initially worked with a number of Gujarati houses apart from that of the Munshaws. He had brought some of what he had learnt from their kitchens to that of the Munshaw's.

The maharaj doesn't work in multiple houses anymore. He is semi-retired now and works primarily with the Munshaws, especially on important occasions. Which is how we got to taste the elaborate feast made by him on Saturday.

The Gujarati lunch spread on Rushina's birthday as cooked
by their maharaj

That peaceful, easy feeling

The food was laid out on the table at Heena aunty's place and we served ourselves unlike in a restaurant where waiters march up to you to ply you and drown you with food. This meant that I could take the food onto my plate as per quantities I was comfortable with and could go back for seconds of whatever I liked (which was pretty much everything).

I did take all the food at one go on my plate and not sequentially. However, once I sat down, I could eat the dishes in whatever order I was comfortable with rather than being guided by what the waiters would be serving, unlike in a restaurant. I had the dhoklas first with the brilliant fried chillies. I next had the thepla (flat breads) with the fried vegetables and drier sabzis. Last was the rice with the liquidy side dishes such as the dal and the kadhi. The sweet dish, a halwa made lauki or gourd, was eaten last.

When I asked the Gujaratis around me, they said that my intuitive order of eating that afternoon more or less mirrored what they would have done too. Rotis first with the stir fried food and then rice with the dals and curries.

My thali at Rushina's. Clockwise: rice, kadhi, pickles, thepla, lauki halwa, dhokla,
vaal dal, kanthol fry, fried beans, sambharyu nu shaak. In case the names are wrong
please let me know

What struck me about the meal was that each dish tasted different from each other and left me with distinct memories unlike what happens when I go to thali restaurants when I have no recollection of what I ate once done with the meal. Each dish here was a revelation in fact.

Whether it was the pickle made with mustard paste or the salad made with chopped cucumber and crushed peanuts (similar to something Maharashtrians do), the subtly spiced fried finely chopped French beans, or the Surti sambharyu nu shaak (mixed vegetable such as pearl onions, potatoes, parwal (pointed gourd) and baby brinjals cooked in a grated coconut base), they all spoke to my heart.

The cucumber salad

Finely chopped fried beans

Plethora of pickles

Sambhar yu nu shaak

These pickled chillies were super

I loved the creamy daal made with the flat butter beans called vaal. I've had these vaal based daals in Gujarati thaali joints before and in Maharashtrian restaurants too. I've found the base there to be very watery and the beans bitter and chalky. The Maharaj's daal was creamy and the texture of the beans divine. I wouldn't mind paying and ordering for a plate of this is a restaurant. One of Rushina's cousins told me that he too feels that most restaurants make a mess of this lentil but that the maharaj does a great job with it.

The daal made with vaal

I liked the kanthol fry which had a tad bitter taste to it just as karela does. I think we call this kaakrol in Bengali. My mother would make them at home but I never touched them there. This I enjoyed.

Kanthol fry

I must make a special mention of the kadhi that I had at the end with rice. It was sweet as kadhis are meant to be. As was it tangy. It had an underlying kick of chilli heat as well. A beautifully complex dish to end the meal with and was possibly one of the best Gujarati kadhis that I've had.

Gujurati kadhi

I told Rushina about how I was surprised by the fact that sweetness was not the over-riding taste that the food left in my mouth unlike what one associates with restaurant Gujarati food. Rushina reiterated in response that Gujarati food is not all about sweet flavour notes. That a Gujarati meal is supposed to offer all tastes in one meal...sweet, salt, sour, bitter and heat.

She told me that the dishes that we got to taste were her favourites from the family kitchen and which are now my favourites too. All put together lovingly by her mother and the maharaj who were carrying forward the love of the earlier generations of the Munshaw women. You will find recipes to many of these dishes and the stories associated with them in Rushina's book, A Pinch of this, A handful of that.

The wisdom of our mothers

With Heena Munshaw and Rushina Ghildayal and what is now my favourite Gujarati thali
I chatted with Rushina's mom, Heena Munshaw, after lunch. She has worked in the travel industry for 29 years and runs her own travel agency. It was fascinating to get to hear some of her stories that afternoon.

Many of you know would know of Rushina as someone who is one of India's earliest food bloggers and that too a blogger turnedfood book author. That she owns and runs one of the earliest full fledged cooking studios in Mumbai, The APB Cook Studio, and now curates interesting food events. 

What I realised that afternoon was that Rushina had got her pioneering spirit from her mother. Turns out that in a world before there were Google maps, or when even Lonely Planet Guides were not available in India, Mama Munshaw would land up in then faraway and rarely visited places such as Australia, New Zealand, Africa and so on. She would then set off in a car with a map and a pen to gather information about these places for her clients to have fruitful trips.

Today Heena Munshaw is exploring new travel territories such as Georgia and Azerbaijan and  is planning new itineraries for today's experience seeking travellers.

On Saturday, mother and daughter got together to host a meal which made me finally fall in love with the Gujarati thali after spending two decades in Mumbai.

Rushina had hosted the first reading of my book, The Travelling Belly. She was also the one who had years back connected me with the folks at Hachette which lead to the making of the book. So I definitely have a lot to be grateful to her for apart from the delightful lunch on Saturday.

On growing up

'The food family portrait' as I put it: Bloggers and writer, chefs, restaurateurs,
TV show hosts whom I have got to know thanks to blogging and
who are friends now & from 
whom I have learnt so much more about the world of food 

In the early years of our friendship, Rushina would often pull my legs and say that she would make me eat vegetables. This would bug me at times and I stuck to the company of my meat loving friends. Since then, Rushina herself has made an effort to explore the world of meats and fish even though she comes from a vegetarian family. This is partly thanks to the memories of her father who is no more. He used to travel the world on work and would tell his children to try everything so that they would not be left high and dry if ever in alien lands.

As for me, as I have grown older and have been exposed to new cuisines and dishes thanks to food blogging, I have learnt to appreciate vegetarian dishes too. My lunch everyday is a home cooked vegetarian meal to the extent possible.

My thali, which I wiped clean on Saturday, and the doggy bags that I took home, were my way of telling Rushina on her birthday, "you win and I am happy for both of us."

This is not meant to be a treatise on Gujarati food and if there are any errors please let me know as I will be happy to correct them... KK

A birthday deserves a cake and this was a superb one from Trident BKC

That's Pinky Chandan Dixit who runs Soam

The gentleman who smilingly took our group photos.
Great photographers deserve to be clicked too